While there are many issues that have consumed the 2022 World Cup in Qatar off the field, from the climate to concerns over migrant workers’ rights, to the safety of the LGBTQIA+ community, there is still, at the end of the day, some football to be played on it.

After a lengthy and dramatic qualifying campaign, the Socceroos find themselves in Group D alongside France, Tunisia, and Denmark. So who are their opponents, what are the major challenges, where are the potential opportunities, and which players are the ones to watch over the next two weeks?

Match Day 1: France

When: November 23 at 6am AEDT
Where: Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah
Head coach: Didier Dechamps
FIFA ranking: 4
2018 World Cup result: Champions

Anyone else experiencing deja vu?

For the second consecutive World Cup finals, Australia will play their opening group-stage match against France.

The difference this time, though, is that Les Bleus are reigning champions, and are widely expected to reach the pointy end of the tournament once again given the heft of talent at their disposal.

France celebrates with World Cup trophy
France defeated Croatia 4-2 to win the 2018 men’s World Cup on home soil. In Qatar, they’re hoping to make it two in a row.(AP: Martin Meissner)

Spearheaded by a front three of PSG winger Kylian Mbappé, 2018 Bronze Ball and Silver Boot recipient Antoine Griezmann, and France’s active leading goalscorer Olivier Giroud (following the late withdrawal of newly crowned Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema), France arguably have one of the deadliest attacking trios of any nation competing in Qatar.

As an illustration of their squad depth, if something was to happen to one of these starting players, Dechamps could call on the likes of Bayern Munich winger Kingsley Coman, Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembélé, and late call-up Marcus Thuram — son of Lilian, who won the 1998 World Cup with France — to take their place.

Their squad is just as impressive down the other end of the field.

Dechamps has spent the last few international windows experimenting with centre back pairings, but hasn’t yet found his perfect combination. Bayern’s Dayot Upamecano, Barcelona’s Jules Kounde, Arsenal’s William Saliba, PSG’s (now-injured) Presnel Kimpembe and his replacement Axel Disasi, Liverpool’s Ibrahima Konate, and Manchester United’s Rafael Varane have all featured recently, though there are fewer natural fullbacks to choose from in Benjamin Pavard, Theo Hernandez, and Lucas Hernandez.

And through the middle, Real Madrid’s Aurelien Tchouameni has been the most consistently used central player in the past few months, but poorly timed injuries to N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba — both of whom were instrumental in the team’s 2018 success but who will miss Qatar entirely — have forced Dechamps to experiment.

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Real Madrid star Eduardo Camavinga, 19, has made the cut, as have Juventus’ Adrien Rabiot, Marseille pair Jordan Veretout and Matteo Guendouzi, and Monaco’s Youssouf Fofana. But the stocks remain noticeably thin with an unusual lack of experience as well as creatively minded, defence-breaking midfielders.

This heavy rotation, as well as the chopping and changing of formations, perhaps explains France’s poor recent run. They’ve won just one of their past six games — a 2-0 win over Austria in September — and have, bizarrely, struggled to score goals, with their last 2+ goal margin coming in March against South Africa.

France come into Qatar dealing with their own off-field dramas, too. There have been reported fallouts between players in the mix for Qatar, a feud between Mbappé and the French Football Federation (FFF) over image rights, allegations of sexual harassment and abuse within the federation under the watch of its president Noël Le Graët, and an alleged extortion of Pogba by his brother Mathias and childhood friends back in March.

There is also a bit of a curse on World Cup winners, with just two nations in the history of the tournament winning back-to-back titles: Italy in 1934 and 1938, and Brazil in 1958 and 1962. More often than not, reigning champions crash out early, as we saw with Germany in 2018 after they won the previous edition only to finish dead last in their group.

All of the above could play into the Socceroos’ hands. France took a while to warm up in their 2018 campaign and only defeated Australia 2-1 in the opening game (and only then because of an own goal by Socceroos fullback Aziz Behich and a penalty converted by Griezmann).

Kylian Mbappe takes a shot against the Socceroos
The Socceroos put up a fight against France in the opening group game of the 2018 World Cup. Could they do it again?(AP: Pavel Golovkin)

A slim 1-0 win over Peru and a 0-0 draw with Denmark was enough to see them through the group, after which they really began showing their high-pressing, physical, and proactive style of possessive play.

So while they look formidable on paper, France could be quite a rustier prospect on the park; an opportunity for the Socceroos to potentially pounce upon.

Staying defensively solid, winning one-on-one battles, controlling space without the ball, cutting off midfield passes to France’s forward line, transitioning quickly, and maximising set pieces will be key for Australia to potentially secure a shock result.

Match Day 2: Tunisia

When: November 26 at 9pm AEDT
Where: Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah
Head coach: Jalel Kadri
FIFA ranking: 30
2018 World Cup result: Group stage

From a team Australia are super familiar with to one they’ve only met once, the Socceroos’ next group game comes against Tunisia, who they last faced all the way back in 2005.

Despite fielding what many described as its “Golden Generation” squad, with players like Mark Viduka, John Aloisi, Josip Skoko, Lucas Neill, Craig Moore and Tim Cahill, the Socceroos lost 2-0 that day — a reminder, perhaps, that Tunisia is a nation we underestimate at our own peril.

Qatar will be Tunisia’s sixth World Cup finals appearance, a tournament from which they have never made it past the group stage. Like Australia, the African nation had to navigate a continental play-off route to qualify for 2022, but only just scraping past Mali 1-0 on aggregate thanks to an own goal from the opposition.

A male soccer team wearing all red lines up with mascots before a big game
Tunisia are one of the “minnows” of the 2022 World Cup and the best chance the Socceroos have to claim three points.(Getty Images: Andrew Surma/NurPhoto)

Australian fans won’t be as familiar with Tunisia’s players as they are with France and Denmark, but there are a couple of names to keep an eye on who have been key for the team over the past few years.

The first is their captain and highest-capped player, winger Youssef Msakni, who currently plies his trade with Al-Arabi in Qatar (a potential advantage with zero international travel required for the 32-year-old). With 17 goals in 87 caps, Msakni and fellow striker Wahbi Khazri (24 goals in 71 games), who leads the line for Montpellier in France, are Tunisia’s two deadliest goalscorers.

But Tunisia’s strength really lies in their defence. They’ve lost only one game by more than a single goal since 2021, and have conceded just twice in their past eight World Cup qualifiers.

Their formidable back line is anchored by Lorient centre back Montassar Talbi with a changing partner of Salernitana’s Dylan Bronn or Kuwait SC’s Bilel Ifa. And the pair is often flanked by highly experienced left back Ali Maâloul and right back Mohamed Dräger.

Head coach Jalel Kadri has been settled in a 4-3-3 formation with Tunisia since taking over at the start of this year and has a well-drilled team which is comfortable out of possession and lethal in transition.

Kadri has also struck a nice balance between experienced veterans and exciting young stars, including handing out more consistent minutes to 19-year-old midfielders Hannibal Mejbri, who is on loan with Birmingham City from Manchester United, and 21-year-old attacker Anis Ben Slimane, who currently plays with Brøndby, though one of the higher capped Ferjani Sassi or Ellyes Skhiri is almost always nearby for a cool, calm head in the middle of the park.

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Tunisia are also strong between the sticks, with 38-year-old goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi (known as Balbouli) – widely touted as one of Africa’s greatest-ever goalkeepers. He has been called up to help usher in the next generation including young Aymen Dahmen, who is expected to start some games despite having just a handful of caps.

But that won’t matter if the team is able to defend as resolutely as their record shows they can and, as they proved in their friendly wins over Japan and Chile in June, find ways to score against teams who out-possess them.

Ultimately, this is the game for the Socceroos to really go for. Knowing that Tunisia are accustomed to having less possession of the ball, deploying more creative and attack-minded players who can score from all areas of the field will be crucial for Graham Arnold, as will ensuring there are fast, disciplined defenders who can clean up any turn-overs and snuff out the counterattacks of their opponents.

If Australia can snatch a draw against France and secure all three points against Tunisia, all while keeping their goal difference at a reasonable level, it could be what sees them through to the Round of 16 for just the second time in their history.

Match Day 3: Denmark

When: December 1 at 2am AEDT
Where: Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah
Head coach: Kasper Hjulmand
FIFA ranking: 10
2018 World Cup result: Round of 16

Finally, the Socceroos will close out the group stage with a final match against the 2022 tournament dark horses, Denmark.

While this will be just their sixth appearance at a World Cup finals, a tournament where they have never progressed past the quarterfinals (in 1998), there is a real sense of momentum about the Danes over the past few years.

This feeling is largely based on their miraculous run through the 2020 European Championships, where they reached the semifinals for the first time since 1992 and only narrowly lost to England 2-1 after extra time.

Jack Grealish's hair is flying as he tries to clear a ball in the corner. Thomas Delaney moves in to tackle
Denmark had their dream European Championship run cut short by England back in 2020.(Getty Images: Alex Morton)

It was a tournament that was particularly emotional for the team after midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed on the field following a heart attack in their opening game. The squad and the country (and many other neutral fans) got behind Denmark as they continued on in the Euros, charging past Russia, Wales, and the Czech Republic in a month that saw the group brought even closer together.

It’s this collective mental strength and belief in themselves that will be Denmark’s driving force in Qatar. Alongside the Socceroos, the Danes are one of the only other nations to have made a strong public statement regarding the human rights concerns of this World Cup, even organising protest kits with supplier Hummel that are completely plain as “[they] don’t wish to be visible during a tournament that has cost thousands of people their lives”.

Australia are familiar with Denmark on the pitch, too, having faced them in the group stage back in 2018. Eriksen was their sole goalscorer in that 1-1 draw, with a 1-0 win over Peru and a 0-0 draw with France enough to get them through to the Round of 16, where they just lost to finalists Croatia 3-2 on penalties after drawing 1-1.

Robbie Kruse is challenged by two Danish players
The Socceroos drew 1-1 with Denmark at the last World Cup, but the Danes have gathered much momentum since then.(AP: Martin Meissner)

Denmark are almost the perfect mix of France and Tunisia in that they have an array of world-class players who are organised in a consistent and effective system that plays to their strengths.

Often setting up in a 4-3-3, the Danes are anchored at the back by their vastly experienced captain Simon Kjær, the team’s most capped player with 121 appearances who currently plays for Milan in Italy.

He is usually accompanied by Barcelona’s Andreas Christiensen or, more recently, Crystal Palace’s Joachim Andersen, with the fullback positions covered off by Leeds United’s Ramus Kristensen and Atalanta’s Joakim Mæhle. 

Just ahead of them sits the puppet master Eriksen, the team’s highest goalscorer with 39 goals in 117 games. He is supported by the midfield duo of Thomas Delaney of Sevilla and Tottenham’s hard-running Pierre-Emile Højbjerg.

The team’s midfield depth, however, is of concern, with a bit of an experience gap opening up between these three and the players waiting in the wings. Given the Qatar World Cup’s tightened schedule and shorter turnarounds in between games, fatigue and niggling injuries could weaken Denmark’s middle somewhat as the group rolls on.

Another possible weakness of the Danes is up front. There has been a lot of experimentation with the forward line over the past year with nobody really cementing themselves as the first-choice striker.

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RB Leipzig’s Yussuf Poulsen is currently the highest-capped striker with 11 goals in 68 games, followed closely behind by former Barcelona forward Martin Braithwaite (10 goals in 62 caps). Copenhagen’s Andreas Cornelius and Sevilla’s Kasper Dolberg are also potential options, with nine and 11 goals for Denmark respectively.

Despite that uncertainty, though, Denmark come into Qatar on a wave of success. They’ve won five of their eight games this year — three of which were won by more than a goal — including two victories over France in the UEFA Nations League. Indeed, where France appear to be a team of stars, Denmark have turned into a star team.

This will likely be Australia’s hardest match-up, so it’s perhaps lucky that it comes at the end of a group stage that should already be fairly tied up.

Shutting down playmaker Eriksen will be absolutely critical if the Socceroos want to get anything from this game, as will be deploying players who can break quickly between and behind lines to pounce on any Danish errors.

Even if they do get past the three red lines of Denmark’s formation, Australia then have to contend with the brilliant Kasper Schmeichel in goal.

Chances will be limited, so the Socceroos have to take them whenever they can get them and hope that they can keep the mighty Danes at bay if they are to progress.